Archive for The Great Dictator

The Sunday Intertitle: Over There

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2021 by dcairns

SHOULDER ARMS (1918) was provided free to military hospitals where it was projected on the ceilings, for burns patients who couldn’t be moved. I can imagine watching it being a painful experience if you were severely wounded, because it’s very funny, but I guess it would be worth it.

Of course, everybody had told Chaplin not to make this film, since joking about the war was considered unacceptable, and Chaplin had received a lot of flack for not being at the front (though not as much flack as he might have received AT the front). As a Brit (he never took US citizenship, considering himself “a citizen of the world”) Chaplin could in theory have enlisted earl and skipped a movie career altogether in favour of an early death and we’d never have heard of him. Obviously I think he made the right call.

By contrast, two of Chaplin’s sons served in WWII (along with his movie-adopted-son Jackie Coogan). So, despite the liberty bonds and the rallies Chaplin attended, we might guess that he wasn’t that enthusiastic about the Great War. And SHOULDER ARMS seems to bear that out. Still, it’s not an anti-war film — a pacifist movie simply wouldn’t have been accepted while the war was raging. But it’s an expression of sympathy for the enlisted man — something Chaplin’s instincts must have told him he could pull off, so he would not be accused of mockery. It worked: the movie was one of his biggest moneymakers, and nobody seems to have condemned it.

For some reason this one isn’t on YouTube in its entirety except in a fuzzy Russian version — by rights it should be public domain so I dunno why not. But there are lengthy clips.

Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin doc series triumphantly unearthed the opening sequences Chaplin shot but discarded, and here they are:

The plan was to show Charlie pre-war and post-war as well as in uniform. Midway through the plan changed, the decision was made to keep the movie short, and the postwar material was never filmed. But here’s Charlie with the kids, three mini-Charlies, waiting outside the pub in a ritual very familiar in Charlie’s native East End. I don’t know that his own dad was around long enough for him to have experienced this, but he’d have seen it.

Mrs. Charlie is an offscreen domestic tyrant hurling dishes, a cartoon-strip cliché. After the film’s first food joke (peeling onions behind his back to avoid the eye-stinging effect) Charlie accepts his draft notice as an escape route from the projectile crockery. But the enemy will be throwing more than plates.

The medical test scene leads to embarrassment, as a shirtless Charlie tries to hide from nurse Edna. David Robinson finds it strange that she should appear here undisguised, since she turns up later as a Frenchwoman at the front. He wonders if this stuff was being shot in a halfhearted or diffident way, with Chaplin not fully meaning to use it. I suspect rather that he planned to have Edna’s nurse turn up again in the war scenes, which would be easy enough to arrange (see also Clara Bow’s role in WINGS), and simply changed his mind.

The test features one of my favourite of Chaplin’s deleted gags, a variant on a routine played for Karno, and taken up in the AUSTIN POWERS movies with ruder gags: silhouetted through a frosted glass door, Charlie is seen accidentally swallowing Dr. Albert Austin’s twelve-inch long tongue depressor (seemingly a spoon), followed by the pliers he tries to retrieve it with. Maybe this was too grotesque and unrealistic for Chaplin’s taste, or maybe it was simply a casualty of restructuring.

So the film as we have it (in two cuts filmed with adjacent cameras and sometimes with alternate takes) opens (after Chaplin signs the main title in his own hand, a quixotic trick to counteract piracy) with Charlie in camp, undergoing training. His feet keep turning out and his legs get tangled. Generally athletic and startlingly nimble, his body disassembles into a storm of malfunctioning limbs when anyone tries to regiment it.

(If you were seeing the film on rerelease as part of The Chaplin Cavalcade, you’d have the director himself narrating a short intro composed of actuality war footage, showing that he had no qualms about relating his comic fantasia of total war to the real thing).

Chaplin benefits from the fact that American doughboys sported the silliest looking uniforms, complete with baggy pants and goofy hats and boots, so his distinctive outline retains some of its attributes, swapping rifle for cane.

The trenches. Charlie enters frame, back to us, displaying the number 13 on his kit, and Rollie Totheroh’s camera dollies after him down the narrow sunken aisle, irresistibly recalling Kubrick and PATHS OF GLORY (I confess the travelling shot during drill made me think of FULL METAL JACKET, too). Since we’re traversing roughly-laid planks, and we can see the ground, so there are no tracks down there, I’m wondering if the camera’s been hung from above, supported from each side, using two sets of tracks alongside the trench? It’s reported that Charlie hadn’t even heard of camera cranes until THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Syd plays a comrade of Charlie’s, though comradeship is in short supply here, as usual in Chaplin’s work. Syd’s character is alternately a schlemiel to be the victim of Charlie’s fecklessness, and a dashing and heroic figure. Not sure who the other bunkmate is, disguised by extravagant facial hair comprising Irish beard with unconnected Groucho moustache and eyebrows.

Fiona was taken by the grim detail of the mousetrap hung from Charlie’s coat button, though a rat trap the size of one of his huge boots would be more use in reality.

The trenches are detailed, gritty and convincing, which brings us to a mystery. In Andrew Kelly’s All Quiet on the Western Front: The Story of a Film, if I recall correctly, a Universal press release is quoted stating that several of the crew of Lewis Milestone’s landmark war movie were veterans of the Great War, including designer Charles D. Hall, who is also the man in charge of SHOULDER ARMS’ sets. Now, I’m in touch with Hall’s great-nephew, Matthew Hall, who reports that there’s no oral history about a military record for CDC. The family’s oral tradition has him entering the US via Canada after his career in Fred Karno’s company. He could have found time to serve in the British army, but then he’d have had to be invalided out, and you’d expect the family to know about it. It COULD just be Universal ballyhoo. All I’m saying is, from the look of the sets, and the details like trenches being named Broadway and Rotten Row, somebody connected to the production has seen the real thing.

Chaplin makes fun of the enemy, with a tiny martinet strutting up and down, berating his hulking, mismatched Keystone Kops Kombat Unit.

Meanwhile, the Chaplin brothers eat lunch, unperturbed by the falling shells. A surprising splitscreen shows Charlie nostalgic for the real Broadway, with Henry Bergman (first of three roles) as a jovial bartender. This stuff is great, but fragmented. Chaplin shot lots (including some troubles with hand grenades which he’d take up later in GREAT DICTATOR), and these sequences may have been a bit more fluid before he got to trimming them down. Edna wrote to Chaplin to say how moved she was by the scene where he receives no mail from home. Impossible to imagine this working as well if it followed footage of him being harangued by a dish-hurling termagant. Charlie reading another soldier’s letter over his shoulder, facial reactions synching up exactly, is a great way of turning pathos into a gag (Chaplin imitators rarely master his ability to take the curse off potential saccharine by startling the audience with unexpected humour).

Chemical warfare! Charlie receives a delayed package from home, a pungent limburger disimproved by its Atlantic crossing. Donning gas mask, he lobs it across no-man’s land where it splatters the tiny commandant (the loyal Loyal Underwood). Note that all the early humour levied against the enemy targets the leaders, not the enlisted men.

The flooded barracks is my favourite sequence, because it’s so grim. The frog on Syd’s bare foot! Note that, when Charlie mistakes Syd’s foot for his own — a gag Stan & Ollie would make use of more than once — it’s apparent that the lack of family resemblance extends to the extremities. Charlie’s outsize boots would actually FIT Syd.

Charlie sleeping underwater with a phonograph trumpet to breathe through is a great gag. And plumping his waterlogged pillow is as excruciating an example of “making the best of things” as we would see until the boot-eating scene in THE GOLD RUSH.

Preparations to go “over the top” — Charlie is newly concerned about his unlucky serial number, then breaks his hand mirror for good measure. Still, seven years bad luck might mean you’re not going to get shot dead… The signal to charge is given, and Charlie goes through a magnificent set of changes, attempting to go through the motions of heroism, then having ladder trouble, then having second thoughts, finally doing his duty with no great enthusiasm. Sending his colleagues up ahead of him is probably the worst thing Charlie does in this film, and the most in character — elsewhere in his filmography, Charlie would always land his fellows in difficulty than get in any himself. But in this context, that’s not a point which can be pressed too far.

The enemy trench is taken — a vanishingly rare occurrence in real life — and Charlie singlehandedly captures thirteen Germans. “I surrounded them,” he says via intertitle, with a descriptive mime of a fast-circling finger to make it clear how this was achieved. He gives the tiny leader a spanking, to the delight of the German soldiers. This kind of solidarity with the ordinary men of the other side must have been very rare in American WWI pictures of the day.

More food: Charlie and Syd eat lunch, ignoring the shelling. “Hush, here comes a whizzbang,” as the song goes. Charlie opens a bottle by holding it aloft so a sniper can shoot the neck off, a gag reprised 56 years later in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. (And in the same director’s HOW I WON THE WAR, Michael Crawford’s serial number is 131313.) He also lights a cigarette using the same method. It’s a stirring scene of two men inured to their desperate situation. Jet black comedy as Charlie chalks up his own sniper kills — the kind of thing that does depend of dehumanizing the other side, to the point where a human life is just a stripe on a blackboard. Harry Lime would laugh more heartily than I can.

Charlie makes the mistake of volunteering. He stands, chest out, proud to serve, until the near-suicidal nature of the mission is pointed out, when he executes an extraordinary physical transformation — his ribs turn concave, his shoulders drop, and he’s suggesting Syd might be a better choice after all.

The scenes of Charlie disguised as a dead tree were filmed amid an LA heatwave and appear to have been no fun at all. Chaplin didn’t like shooting on location at the best of times. He immediately faces chopping-down for firewood, a hazard nobody seems to have anticipated. (Immediate detection owing to being the only tree in France with a moustache would seem a likelier threat.) One of his arm-branches terminates in a knotty lump, which proves handy for knocking the would-be wood-gatherers cold.

Syd is captured by Henry Bergman in his second role (I’ve given up counting Albert Austin’s appearances and disappearances in this one). Charlie saves him from the firing squad but has to flee, losing his Tabanga costume. The bit of pipe he crawls through was a happy discovery on location, swiftly written into the story.

Edna enters the picture, and Charles D. Hall constructs a wonderful bombed-out dollhouse, exposed to the elements like a cutaway drawing. Charlie flees inside, taking care to lock the door and pull the blinds even though the surrounding wall has gone. This kind of large-scale expenditure horrified the budget-conscious Syd, until at last his wife Minnie forbade him to be involved in production at all, since it just upset him. (Syd also starred in his own WWI vehicle, A BETTER ‘OLE. It’s good!)

Edna, the ruin’s inhabitant, finds Charlie passed out and nurses him. Charlie coyly feigns unconsciousness a bit longer to enjoy her ministrations. When he awakens, she’s nervous until he pantomimes (the lack of a shared language justifies added gestural art) that he’s with the Americans. Not sure if this would necessarily be reassuring to a noncombatant — though the Germans were blamed for a lot of atrocities, gleefully reenacted by Von Stroheim back in Hollywood, in reality no one side ever has the monopoly on war crimes.

The Germans — the same troop of Chaplin troupers — show up, but the house collapses and Charlie escapes. With the remains of her home destroyed, Edna is now arrested for good measure, but the Moebius-strip geography of a Chaplin plot soon has him hiding in enemy HQ so he can rescue her, singeing her attacker (yes, these Krauts are all rapey) with a red-hot poker. The Edward II assault seems justifiable given these characters’ sleaziness.

The arrival of the Kaiser sets things up for a bit of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS style revisionism, though since the war was still on I suppose it’s more like prophecy. This part of the film is more exciting than it is funny. It reminded Fiona of ‘Allo, ‘Allo! a sitcom she likes and I don’t. Syd plays Kaiser Bill in a theatrical makeup that renders him unrecognizable. Henry Gibson is also back in another disguise. Now Charlie has to rescue Edna and Syd while capturing the enemy leaders and also making sure Syd’s two characters don’t bump into one another.

The best part of this is Charlie, impersonating a German chauffeur, brutalizing Syd every time someone’s watching. Syd is relieved to learn it’s all a ruse, but then the strangling begins anew, again and again. Mistreating Syd is definitely the Way Forward.

Edna in drag is TOO CUTE. The whole thing ends triumphally but it’s all a dream, which helps in a number of ways. It alibis the story against claims of implausibility, and it adds a bittersweet note — the reality of war is still ahead of Charlie, and it cannot be averted (unless peace breaks out before he’s shipped over). CHaplin COULD have had himself wake up in the sodden trench, thereby making the story’s grimmer parts real and only its heroic climax a fantasy, but he chose, I guess, a safer route. It worked, since nobody was offended, it seems.

Chaplin, untrained in storytelling save as a performer in theatre and movies, retained a weakness for it-was-all-a-dream endings, but they’re often used in interesting ways. They don’t solve the story problems — as here, they deepen them. He even contemplated finishing THE GREAT DICTATOR this way, with his Jewish barber character awakening in the concentration camp. Which would have been undeniably strong. But sometimes we don’t want strong.

I’d like this film even better if it took more of the right kind of risks, but it’s the art of the possible we’re talking about here. As it was, Chaplin lost confidence and was on the point of scrapping the movie when chum Doug Fairbanks’ hysterical reaction convinced him not to. Thank God for Doug.

Chaplin wasn’t the only one finding comedy in war. Some of the best war poems have a satiric bite. I like Siegfried Sassoon’s The General ~

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

As with SHOULDER ARMS, nothing about this is really funny, except the rhythm and rhyme of it. Unlike the Chaplin, a bitter aftertaste is definitely the goal. With Chaplin’s film, it’s like more a minor note of disquiet amid the hilarity. Milos Forman talked about seeing THE GREAT DICTATOR in Czechoslovakia after WWII, and feeling the massive relief at finally being able to laugh at this bastard. Audiences in 1918 must have experienced something of the same liberating effect.

The Sunday Intertitle: But soft, we are observed!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2021 by dcairns

So… declining Essanay’s urging that he should stay on, Chaplin took on his half-brother Syd as managed and signed with Mutual, again for a record-breaking fee. He also acquired a bigger studio — the biggest — to shoot in, still open air but closed off by canvas side walls and with linen diffusers to drape overhead.

THE FLOORWALKER seems designed to exploit this set-up, as it’s entirely based in one big two-storey set, with connecting elevator and escalator, both of which are exploited for gags. A lot of the film is just “turn Charlie loose in a department store,” but there’s a crime plot too. Surprisingly, despite the presence of Edna, carried over from Essanay and in Chaplin’s personal life too, there’s no romance.

But we do have the welcome addition of newcomers Eric Campbell and Albert Austin.

Campbell is immediately monumental. Practically all the Mutual films can be seen as exercises in using Eric to his full potential. Nobody ever strangled Charlie like Eric did. I know Chaplin is selling the gag furiously, flapping his head about like a mere sawdust-filled bag, but Eric is genuinely flinging him around with great violence.

Austin, promoted from an unnoticeable bit in POLICE (Chaplin evidently DID notice), looks on helplessly. This will be his main function in all the Mutuals. He looks on from behind a moustache of inhuman size, but there’s nothing flamboyant about the rest of him. Indeed, the moustache’s rather distrait quality seems to transfer itself to his entire personage. There IS, perhaps, a hint of pansy stereotype in the overall limpness, which is not however confined to the wrist.

The film opens by establishing a fake Chaplin (herr future director Lloyd Bacon), a guy who merely has the toothbrush ‘tache. The lookalike plot of course anticipates THE GREAT DICTATOR, and in a way the many faux Hulots of PLAYTIME. It’s not immediately clear why this character has to exist and audiences in 1916 may have been momentarily puzzled. But the great plague of Chaplin imitators hadn’t begun yet, so they wouldn’t have thought they were being cheated.

This character is in league with Big Eric in a plan to loot the safe.

A startling cinematic touch — Big Eric is introduced by a big closeup, first of his meaty hands clutching a document, then a slow pan and tilt to the meaty face, enhanced by fake face fuzz — a tweezered space-alien monobrow, a beard to make Svengali or Rasputin virescent with envy. And intense guyliner to make those little marbles seem to start from their sockets. An icon is born.

Edna has a thankless secretary role in this one. Bacon and Campbell, facing arrest for unseen crimes, plan their escape. This is quite a lot of plot and character to set up before Charlie even appears. Three and a half minutes worth, probably a record. By now Chaplin knows the audience will wait for him, and even enters with his back to the camera, confident in his outline.

Charlie, at last entering the story (picking his nose), sows disorder by treating the objects on sale as if they were possessions in his own home — shaving accessories and such. I like his interest, not in a sock, but in the mannequin leg enclosed by it. He’s blankly trying to think up some use for it. He also throws in a cheeky smile, which feels like a new development. His former obnoxiousness is leavened with charm.

Much use is made of the inconveniently placed drinking fountain. Chaplin loves a water feature.

His misuse of the store gradually brings the slow-to-anger Austin to the boil, and squabbling turns to kick-up-the-arse battling. In the midst of this, Charlie does a David Jason, leaning on something that won’t support him.

An ironic intertitle: BARGAIN SEEKERS. In fact, shoplifters. While management is ripping off the store and staff is arguing with Charlie, two women start emptying the shelves — in anticipation of Laurel & Hardy’s TIT FOR TAT. We don’t need to wonder if Chaplin’s former understudy Stan Laurel saw this. But the cheerful wholesale thief of the later L&H comedy is better integrated than CC’s lady filchers, who are a mere decorative flourish.

After all his willfully obstreperous behaviour, what finally lands Charlie in legal trouble is an innocent mistake caused by the perfidy of others. The shoplifters have cleaned out a rack. Seeing the empty rack marked 25c, Charlie seeks to buy this unexpected bargain. Hard to imagine what he wants with a rack, but the disembodied leg was a puzzler too. Maybe he’d have used that to store an odd sock, and maybe this is for his collection of neckties (the tie is one part of Chaplin’s costume that continues to change, I think).

Charlie is now a fugitive in the store, and Chaplin has fun coming up with hiding places and playing “he’s behind you,” a fine old British pantomime tradition.

In amidst this, the escalator is starting to play a role. Charlie is as baffled by it as he formerly was by swing doors. It keeps trying to abduct him skywards. Chaplin’s old boss, Mack Sennett, wondered aloud upon seeing the film why the devil they hadn’t thought of this gag at Keystone. The obvious answer would be that Sennett lacked the imagination, and probably wouldn’t have wanted to shell out to build the thing.

Bacon and Campbell abstract the store’s takings from safe to Gladstone bag, but Bacon smashes a drawer over Campbell’s immense noggin and absconds solo. Bir Eric’s staggering about crosseyed with the drawer over his head is knockabout gold. The tipsy dance is even funnier performed by a big man than by a regular clown — all that weight, in tiptoed stagger.

Fleeing the law, Charlie bumps into Bacon, who is fleeing the supine Eric. Cue mirror routine. The idea of someone mistaking another, similar-looking character for his reflection had been used on stage at least as far back as 1894. A European music hall act called the Schwarz Brothers attempted to retain exclusive use of the gag from 1911. Max Linder performed it in 1913 in LE DUEL DE MAX — a direct copy of the Schwarz version, but not every country upheld the copyright claim of the “brothers” (in reality a father and son called Robi), suggesting that they hadn’t originated as much of the skit as they claimed. Interestingly, the Robis performed in the US in 1915, so that in theory Chaplin could have seen them. If he didn’t, he probably saw Linder’s film version. (Credit to Anthony Balducci for this research.)

The gag isn’t particularly well motivated here — there’s no mirror frame, so the misunderstanding requires both Charlie and Bacon’s character to be very dim. That’s no stretch for Charlie, who is as stupid or cunning as the plot requires at this stage, but it doesn’t make much sense for the crafty embezzler Bacon.

Also of note here is the kiss — seeing in Charlie an unwitting saviour, Bacon grabs him by the (upper) cheeks, and Charlie reciprocates with a quick osculation. The Little Fellow is the ultimate in gender fluidity. Put him in a dress, he becomes a woman. Put him in a house, he becomes a householder. If the set-up looks like a clinch, he goes with the flow.

Bacon’s had an idea. Switching clothes with Charlie, he will make his escape. He plans on Charlie getting pinched for robbing the store. In fact, Bacon is immediately collared for Charlie’s “crimes.” Charlie is able to walk about under the eye of the law, who suspect nothing. Which is pretty implausible, since all he’s done is swap suits.

Even crazier is Albert Austin accepting Charlie as the floorwalker, a man he knows well. He’s also not likely to have forgotten the scruffy interloper who recently kicked him across the store. But these doubling plots are never very logical in Chaplin — ask why nobody remarks on the Jewish tailor’s resemblance to Adenoid Hynkel in THE GREAT DICTATOR?

A second kiss — kissing the aged, tiny elevator boy’s forehead is, apparently, Charlie’s idea of how a boss should behave.

Charlie now plunges into the role of floorwalker. True, he doesn’t understand what the job entails, but he finds entertaining things to do. The shoe department is a great excuse for fondling ladies’ ankles, for instance.

Two familiar faces now enter the film. To my surprise, here’s Leo White and his silk hat. Leo would appear in several more Mutual Chaplin films, culminating in EASY STREET, suggesting that Chaplin didn’t bear a grudge over White’s meddling with A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN. Still, after 1917 he stopped using the silk-hatted foil, and White was soon co-starring in Chaplin copycat Billy West’s shorts. White was a prolific bit player until his death in 1948 — he’s in CASABLANCA, CLOAK AND DAGGER, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, THE FOUNTAINHEAD…

Also on hand is Henry Bergman, a versatile supporting player who would keep acting for Chaplin, exclusively, up until MODERN TIMES. He would have been under contract so he’d have drawn a paycheck even in the years-long gaps between features. Chaplin, stingy in some respects, was very generous in that way. Edna Purviance also benefited from regular cheques, decades after she’d stopped acting.

Bergson plays your basic palsied dotard here, and is unrecognisable. Out of disguise, he’s the stout restauranteur in MOD TIMES. This cruel mocking of the afflicted is the kind of rather harsh comedy nobody seems to have batted at eye at in the nineteenteens. The actual playing is very funny if you can forget about being sensitive. I’m not suggesting you SHOULD. Charlie himself has a suitably benign attitude to the old fellow — he’s amused, yes, but mostly looks on in innocent wonderment at this extraordinary spectacle.

Charlie also has the familiar trouble with mannequins — they are too much like humans, you can’t trust them. Humans, on the other hands, are too much like objects. Everything is slippery. Confronted by the cigar-chewing detective, Charlie sees the cigar as a useful promontory from which to hang his cane. The fact that the cigar’s owner takes this amiss is a surprise to him.

Meanwhile, Big Eric has woken up and is on the warpath. The rest of the movie is a running battle for the bag full of loot. Chaplin does an expert mime upon discovering the billfolds. Looks. Looks up, processing the information. Looks about nervously. There’s a lot of high-quality strangling. And, most significant of all —

THE SONOFABITCH IS A BALLET DANCER

Chaplin breaks out into his first ever ballet. It seems to be in direct response to having Eric as screen partner. The gravitational pull of the larger player puts him into a terpsichorean orbit. The exaggerated butchness of Big Eric, all guyliner to the contrary, brings out Charlie’s flirtatiousness. He becomes both feminine and implike, a prancing tease whose submissiveness is a mere ploy. These observations are prompted in particular by the fact that this first set of moves are so unmotivated in plot terms. Later frolics are triggered by the situation, like the curtain Charlie hides behind in THE CURE. This one is sheer joie de vivre — an ecstatic response to finally finding his Goliath. Love at first sight.

The sudden appearance of kops firing guns is a little surprising/confusing, and the ending is abrupt. The gag of the elevator crashing down on Eric so that he bursts through its floor in a daze, presumably to face arrest, is nice, but Chaplin hasn’t built a real elevator, I don’t think, and the device seems to operate like a teleporter: the doors close, then open again in a more-or-less identical set up, and we’ve ascended or descended a floor.

Apart from not finding a role for Edna that’s worthwhile, and the continuing use of cutaways to inert scenes, used semi-randomly to allow Chaplin to ellide uninteresting business — a cutaway gets around the delicate business of Chaplin and Bacon exchanging pants, for instance — and the abruption of that finish, this is a prime Chaplin, about as good as anything he’s done up to now, and a fitting inauguration for the excellent Mutual series.

The Sunday Intertitle: Sunday in the park with Charlie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2020 by dcairns

…and Mack and Mabel and Eva etc…

Some weird video action in this version, mainly around the four-minute mark. And best mute the music, which is appalling.

Echo Park, AKA the Forest of Arden, or of ardent clowns. Mack Swain and Eva Nelson occupy one bench, Charlie and Mabel another. Charlie throws one leg across Mabel’s lap, Harpo-style, but becomes prissy when she folds the toe and upper of his boot back, like a leather blanket, exposing his bare toes. Then he starts peeling a banana. Hmm, I wonder where this is going?

In fact, no banana-skin gag is attempted.

Charlie is experimenting — same costume, but with a top hat. His early shorts play far more loose with the Tramp image than I realised. I’m sure the accounts I read as a kid suggest it was all one thing after MAKING A LIVING. But the Tramp is versatile. There’s even room to question whether the Jewish barber in THE GREAT DICTATOR is the same character, or a distinct variant. He certainly shares aspects.

The top hat might seem a good contrast with the disintegrating boots. But the derby serves that role well enough. It was worth a try, though, I guess.

If you’re feeling nostalgic, you could enjoy this ratty sepiatone print in French, with an iris-in at the end.

Charlie leaves Mabel and passes Mack, who is minus his usual painted Grouchostache but has a tennis racket, and goes into a bar. Mack swiftly becomes a masher and starts bothering Mabel. For some strange reason Chaplin frames them crammed into the bottom left. I guess because he wanted to show Mack hovering in the centre of shot for a moment. And because one space = one shot, there’s no option to change the angle, at least until after we’ve cut away to Chaplin in the bar.

Chaplin often doesn’t look like himself in these earlies, because his face is doing things it doesn’t do later, but when he laughs “delicately” at having “forgotten” to pay for his liquor, you can HEAR Chaplin’s later laugh from the talkies.

And, GOOD — when he gets out of the bar, Mack & Mabel now occupy a much more comfortable position in shot. Just for a few seconds, then Charlie joins them and we’re back to the other angle, which is fine because now everyone stands up and faces off. Charlie’s indignation at being ignored by the bully who’s annoying his wife leads to some very Chaplinesque prissiness, and he takes to punching Mack furiously in the bottom. Even a thwack with the cane and a series of kicks don’t distract Mack from his goofy wooing. The impacts make clouds of dust fly from Mack’s capacious ass. Were all Keystone clowns powdered with fuller’s earth before going into action?

Soon there’s a fourway argument, and then this separates into pairs again, with Charlie mad at Mabel while Mack and Eva seem happy to have sown strife. Everyone in this film is awful except Mabel.

While Charlie’s back in the bar, Mabel negotiates the purchase of a boxer’s mannequin, one of those things that sways on a heavy, rounded base. Charlie has already had some of the usual trouble with a swing door, so this doesn’t bode well for him. A bit of expressive pantomime tries to convey to us, I think, that Mabel hopes to build up her hubbie’s musculature so he will be more able to defend her honour in future skirmishes. Sure enough, Charlie is being picked on by a local rough in the local bar. Charles Chaplin needs Charles Atlas. In one charming, irrelevant aside, Mabel walks up and down in a bow-legged imitation of the barely-yet-established Chaplin walk.

Charlie’s interactions with the ruffians in the bar see his supercilious mannerisms — defining attributes of the Tramp — come out more and more. Plus, setting himself up against a huge guy like Swain allows Charlie to appear more like a child in adult clothes. While still being a comic drunk because that’s what he was hired to do.

Mabel receives the punchbag-dummy while wearing pyjamas and a leopard skin. A good look for her. 1914 fashions in America were generally frumpy to the extreme, so this is welcome glam. The delivery men, like all the men, are awful.

Later that night, Charlie gets home drunk, with some kind of vegetable matter in his hand. He mistakes the dummy for some kind of silent, headless intruder, and becomes jealous. Unwritten law and all that. But, interspersed with him (predictably) hitting the dummy and getting walloped when it rebounds, is more interesting/funny stuff of him trying to reason with it, showing it the door, etc. All of which is allowed to spread out and occupy time in a way unusual at Keystone.

It’s a trial run for ONE A.M., of course, complete with silk hat.

Mabel is soon involved, trying to make Charlie understand that his opponent is no mere flesh-and-blood rival. Both of them get knocked down. Neighbours gather in the hallway, apparently thrilled by the sounds of murder emanating from the Chaplin residence. Everyone in this film is awful. It’s a nightmare vision of a world without empathy.

Charlie eventually recognises the dummy’s inert nature. A touching reconciliation, not quite up to King Lear, but it’ll do. There are a dizzying number of versions of this film on YouTube, some of which end with the couple flat on their arses, some with an attempt at a kiss, cut short by either nitrate decomposition or the prudish priest from CINEMA PARADISO. There is a smudgy colorized one with nice Antonio Coppola piano score, the sepia French one, and one anamorphically stretched into 16:9, creating a cast of warped Arbuckles, while the clueless perpetrator boasts that it’s in HD. None is ideal. Buy the DVD.